There was always a light shining from somewhere to perk up our sad, little household when I was growing up. Oftentimes that light came in the form of television entertainment.
Back then, we were limited in our television viewing to the channels that our TV antenna could pick up. That meant KEYT Channel 3, our local ABC affiliate, and four or five Los Angeles stations. We would watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Sea Hunt, ABC Wide World of Sports (“The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”), and the 15-minute Bill Huddy News Report that gave us all we needed to know about our nation and world.
And we got to watch the best Christmas TV specials ever made.
Imagine the fun we had: six kids sitting in front of the tube, memorizing the songs and dialogue, and escaping reality one half-hour at a time.
We loved Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer (1964), which is the longest running Christmas TV special of them all. The stop-motion technology was new and we were in awe of how real the characters looked. The first time we saw Rudolph, he was probably a “gray-nosed” reindeer: we didn’t have color TV for some time. But that didn’t stop us from loving the story: the underdog saves the day.
I remember The Little Drummer Boy (1968) having a deep effect on me. It is the story of an orphan with a heart filled with hate. I was eight years old and starting to recognize things, like being “poor” and that my parents didn’t like each other. The boy’s sadness was something I understood. But his hate turned to joy when he came upon the newborn King and was able to offer the only gift he had to give. As I watched, I felt a hope for my situation, and I think I even cried once as the Vienna Boys Choir sang the line,”Then he smiled at me.” At the end, the narrator quotes what I chose later as my life verse: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). It is a verse my father would quote often, and it stayed with me until I understood its true meaning 25 years later.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) aired when I was six years old. It scared me to think that someone might do to us what the Grinch (voiced by Boris Karloff) did to the Whos of Whoville. My brothers assured me that he would never get by them to our Christmas tree. I remember clapping while watching the Grinch’s heart grow “three sizes that day,” I was so happy that he had changed. Every song we memorized and sang as we watched together this Christmas classic.
But my favorite Christmas TV special of them all is A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). I try to watch it every year. Here’s a fact that’s not well known: The TV network executives were not happy about Schulz’s use of Bible verses and children’s voices. They thought these would cause the production to flop, and Schulz had to fight to keep the Bible verses in the script. The show received both critical and commercial acclaim, and 47 years later, this is still one of the most watched and beloved Christmas TV specials.
When Charlie Brown becomes so sad about the commercialization of Christmas, Linus recites Luke 2:8-14. I think it was the voice of a child speaking with belief and sincerity and truth that caught the viewer’s heart. And it did mine, even at that young age.
Here’s the great scene:
Charlie Brown: I guess you were right, Linus. I shouldn’t have picked this little tree. Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about.
[shouting in desperation]
Charlie Brown: Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?
Linus Van Pelt: Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.
[moves toward the center of the stage]
Linus Van Pelt: Lights, please.
[A spotlight shines on Linus]
Linus Van Pelt: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'”
[Linus picks up his blanket and walks back towards Charlie Brown]
Linus Van Pelt: That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
And right on cue, we would join in and sing Hark, the Herald Angels Sing with the Peanuts Gang. The animators made the children take a breath between lines, and we would mimic that breath-taking as we sang along.
While writing this, I noticed a common theme that flows through these stories: Young hearts overcoming big obstacles.
Maybe that’s why we loved them so.
What are some of your favorites?